Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
Authorship of 'Christ's Kirk on the Green'.

THE members of the Scottish Text Society who, in these days of political excitement, can find a quiet half-hour for the early literature of their country, will be at once delighted and disappointed with a recent publication, edited by the well-known English philologer, Mr Skeat. I refer to the poetical works of King James I. In this edition We have, for the first time, the rare boon of a perfect text of the Kingis Quair, carefully copied from the unique MS. in the Bodleian library at Oxford ; and we have, besides, a scholarly account of the relation of James’s English to the English of Chaucer. Disappointment, however, will be felt at the exclusion of a poem which popular tradition has long associated with the name of James I.—Christ’s Kirk on the Green. This famous poem is treated by the editor in an altogether new and original manner. He denies it, on what one cannot help regarding as feeble evidence, to James I.; bestows it, but only for one capricious moment, upon James V.; and terminates his very arbitrary arbitration by flinging it in the air to any anonymous hand that may seize it! By this arrangement of Mr Skeat’s, Christ’s Kirk on the Green falls, it may be supposed, under that division of the Society’s prospectus which is meant to include the unclaimed popular poetry of Scotland. That is a place where few would look to find it; and one cannot but think that a poem, which has been so long and so intimately connected with James I., and which, if it do not belong to him, belongs to no one else that can be named, would find its most appropriate place in association with his authentic work. It is, as I have said, a disappointment not to find it there ; and the disappointment is the greater that such an elucidation of the text as Mr Skeat is so well qualified to give must now be delayed, and may not be forthcoming.

But there is dissatisfaction as well as disappointment. If any one will take the trouble to examine the reasons for which Mr Skeat refuses the poem to James I., he will find them far from convincing. They offer, indeed, but a feeble opposition to the evidence of James’s authorship, and make it no greatly difficult undertaking for a Scot, in the language of Pope; to ‘fight for Christ’s Kirk on the Green’ in James’s behalf.

The evidence in favour of James’s authorship is both internal and external or historical. The external evidence, let it be said here in a sentence, is entirely in James’s favour; and there is no internal evidence sufficiently strong to warrant any one in assigning it away from him.

The external evidence consists mainly of two independent statements made by writers who were alive considerably less than a century after, the tragic death of James I. That singularly accomplished and singularly unfortunate prince, as is well known, perished in 1437. the early part of the sixteenth century, the historian Mair referred to his poetical abilities, and after descriptively alluding to the Kingis Quair* mentioned him as the well-known author of many ‘Cantilenae,’ which were then in popular request and circulation in the country. One is perfectly free to suppose that Christ’s Kirk on the Green is included in this designation, and the supposition is strengthened by the well-established fact of James’s love of adventure and predilection for disguise. His habit of roving incognito furnished him with many a humorous theme, and no one will doubt his capability of poetical expression. But, further, there is the clear and express statement of George Bannatyne, that Christ’s Kirk on the Green was the composition of James I. The poem, forming one of a collection by various authors, is itself written out, and assigned, as has been said, to King ‘James the First;* and the date of the collection is 1568. It may well be asked here how Mr Skeat ‘ dings ’ the fact of this evidence, and upon what superior information he ‘disputes’ the statement In the simplest manner imaginable, and with the strictest economy of language,—‘James the First9 he says, is a clerical error for 4 James the Fift’ (Fifth)! His next step is to deny it to James V., and thus poor Bannatyne is convicted of a double fault, viz., a slip of the pen and an error of judgment.

But why should Mr Skeat propose the correction of ‘James V.’ for the clerical error of his own suggestion ? Chiefly because it has been the fashion among English critics of Scottish literature to assign Christ’s Kirk on the Green to James V. He has followed the example of Ritson, who followed Warton, who followed Percy, who followed Gibson, who dubiously followed the originator of the evil, the untrustworthy Dempster, who compiled his ecclesiastical history in the early part of the sixteenth century, took occasion to refer to the poetical talent of James V., and in this connection credits him with the composition of Christ’s Kirk on the Green. More correctly, he credits him with the production of a poem descriptive of a rustic merry-making at Falkirk. Here there is the double confusion of one royal poet for another, and of one Scottish town for another, or rather for other two. Christ’s Kirk and Falkland collide in the recollection of the writer, who was either too indolent, or, as he wrote abroad, and at a distance from trustworthy sources of information, was unable to verify his ideas, and Falkirk was the result of the collision.

Mr Skeat’s objections to the assignment of the poem to James I. on the internal evidence are on old, and we should have thought exploded, lines — viz., the dissimilarity of the poem, in respect of language, style, and metre, to the Kingis Quair. The bulk of these objections is met by the difference of subject, and the difference of subject may fairly be accounted for by the greatly altered circumstances in which the king wrote. It is scarcely necessary to consider the remaining objections. The subject determines the style, and to a large extent the measure; and the scenes and characters portrayed spontaneously suggest the language. If James was only a respectable imitator of Chaucer’s English, he knew his own language well; he had every means of knowing the Scottish character familiarly; and there was all the difference between the amiable but somewhat sentimental prince, a prisoner in England, and the free and independent Sovereign, vigorously attentive to the duties of practical government, that exists between diffident youth and robust manhood. The objection on the score of metre begs the question. It is said that no specimen of the peculiar, rollicking, semi-lyrical stanza in which the poem is written exists previous to the middle of the sixteenth century. The statement presupposes that neither Christ’s Kirk on the Green, nor the companion poem commencing At Beltane, was in existence before that time. It is apparent that some one must have invented the stanza ; and other considerations. apart, it is at least as probable that the inventor was the clever King James as that he was some other person. No one will deny that the stanza is well adapted to the theme and motive of the poem.

To the objection that much of the language employed in Christ’s Kirk on the Green is too modem for the early part of the fifteenth century, it is to be observed in answer, that it is not more modern than many passages in poems which are avowedly of that period. But this argument has been unwarrantably advanced.

The poem exhibits all the signs of a fifteenth century date. Even Mr Skeat is generous enough to allow that it may have been composed in the fifteenth century. Only, with a nicety of adjudication which seems to us like the possession of a sixth sense, he would place it half a century after James’s death. It would be easy to give a list of words or phrases from the poem which would simply defy the interpretation of any but the most accomplished philologer. We should have liked to know Mr Skeat's ideas on the scene, and the occasion of the poem, and his interpretation of such expressions as ‘gluvis of the raffel richt,’ ‘shune of the straitis' 'the kenzie cleiket to the cavell,’ etc. The poetry of the times of James V exhibits no such difficulties of diction.

Return to our Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus